Post Archive for October 2012

Parashas Vayeira

One of the events described in this week’s parashah is the destruction of Sodom and the rescue of Avraham’s nephew Lot. Two angels came to Sodom, each charged with one of the two above-mentioned tasks. The Torah relates (Bereishis 19:1-3):
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, while Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom; Lot noticed, and he arose to greet them, and he bowed, face to the ground. And he said: “Now, my masters, turn aside, please, to your servant’s house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then rise early, and go on your way.” And they said: “No—instead we will spend the night in the square.” And he urged them exceedingly, so they turned toward him and came into his house.
The Midrash comments (Bereishis Rabbah 50:4): “And he urged them (וַיִּפְצַר בָּם) – he injected into them agitation and distress (אף וצרה).” The Maggid sets out to explain this baffling remark. Let us consider, he says, why Hashem sent the angels to Lot in the guise of men, so that they would spend the night in his house. In what way was this façade necessary for the angels to carry out their mission? We can explain as follows. Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 7:10): “Let the evil of the wicked destroy them, while You put the righteous one on a firm footing.” On occasion, Hashem, in His ingenuity, will bring about the downfall of a wicked man and the salvation of the righteous in a single stroke. When He sees that a wicked man is approaching his quota of sin, He creates a situation in which the wicked man has the opportunity to chase after a righteous man. If he takes the opportunity, he reaches his quota and becomes fit to be destroyed. At the very same time, as the righteous man is subjected to the wicked man’s pursuit, he is struck with terror that infuses him with intensified fear of Hashem, stronger devotion to serving Him, and greater reliance on His providence. This spiritual rise produces the merit through which the righteous man is saved from the troubles besetting him.
The angels’ activity in Sodom was along similar lines. Hashem sent them to achieve two goals: to pave the way for the people of Sodom to reach their quota of sin and to provide Lot with a way to gain the merit he needed to be saved. The angels appeared to Lot in the guise of men, and when Lot invited them into his house, he gained the merit he needed. Afterward, the people of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that he give his guests over into their hands, so that they could abuse them in their usual way. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 50:5 remarks that, after this despicable act committed by the entire city of Sodom, it was no longer possible to put forward any arguments in their defense. They had reached their quota of sin. Lot’s merit and the Sodomites’ wickedness were especially prominent because of the contrast betweeen them. Lot’s persistent urging of the angels to come into his house brought out the Sodomites’ wickedness all the more. Thus, the Midrash expounds: “And he urged them (וַיִּפְצַר בָּם) – he injected into them agitation and distress (אף וצרה).” We can read the second “them” as referring to the people of Sodom: Through his urging of the angels, Lot generated added agitation, distress, and anger toward Sodom, causing their fate to be sealed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah begins the Torah’s discussion of the life of Avraham Avinu. In particular, it discuss the “Covenant Between the Parts,” where Hashem tells Avraham that He is going to grant Eretz Yisrael to his descendants. Avraham asks (Bereshis 15:8): “My Lord, God, through what will I know that I will inherit it?” Various commentators analyze why Avraham asked this question. Here, however, we will focus on Avraham’s addressing Hashem as “My Lord.” The Gemara states (Berachos 7b):
Said R. Shimon bar Yochai: “From the day the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world, no one called Him ‘Lord,’ until Avraham came and called Him ‘Lord,’ as it is written: ‘And he said, “My Lord, through what will I know that I will inherit it?”’” Said Rav: “Moreover, Daniel was answered only on account of Avraham. Daniel prayed (Daniel 9:17): ‘And now, our God, heed the prayer and supplications of Your servant, and cause Your countenance to shine upon Your desolate sanctuary, for the sake of my Lord.’ He should have said: ‘for Your sake.’ Rather, he was saying: ‘For the sake of Avraham, who called You “My Lord.”’”
The Maggid brings out the idea of this teaching with a parable. A nobleman inherited a city to rule over, but, having no prior familiarity with politics, he knew nothing about the matters one must deal with in running a city, such as setting regulations and collecting taxes. Someone approached the nobleman offering advice, and this man explained all these matters to him. In line with this advice, the nobleman instituted a tax law requiring each resident to pay a certain sum per year, and he set up a network of agents to collect the taxes, along with specified penalties for failure to pay. Some years later, the advisor’s grandson violated the tax law, and was put in jail. A certain elder, who recalled the events leading to the legislation of the tax law, approached the nobleman to plead for mercy on behalf of the offender. He said: “My lord, it is true that someone who violates your laws deserves to be punished. But I ask you, please, to remember how you were originally led to institute the tax law. It was this fellow’s grandfather who offered you his wise advice and told you to institute a tax law, which previously had not been in effect in this city. It is therefore only right to show his grandson mercy, beyond the letter of the law, and exempt him from punishment.”
The parallel is as follows. Before Avraham’s time, Hashem ran the world under a system of pure generosity, granting people free bounty without regard to their deeds. Avraham, however, recognized Hashem, accepted the yoke of Hashem’s sovereignty, and took it upon himself to serve Hashem through righteous conduct. He conferred on Hashem the title “Lord,” and Hashem has held that title ever since. From that time on, Hashem has run the world under a system of just recompense, no longer dispensing completely free bounty as He did before, but instead granting each person what he deserves according to his deeds, be they good or bad. Thus, the Midrash, expounding on the phrase עין משפט in Bereishis 14:7, calls Avraham “the eye that introduced the Attribute of Justice into the world” (Bereishis Rabbah 42:3). [Before Avraham, people were “blindly” unaware of Hashem and He therefore treated them graciously, but when Avraham came on the scene and went about calling people’s attention to Hashem’s existence, they no longer had any excuse for their improper conduct, and Hashem subjected them to justice.] Daniel, in his prayer, asked Hashem to show the Jewish People mercy for the sake of Avraham, who was the one who had given Him the title “Lord.” He was saying: “Behold, Avraham is the one who introduced the Attribute of Justice into the world. It is therefore fitting that You show favor to his offspring, beyond the letter of the law, and treat them with compassion.”
In memory of Kalonimus Kalman ben Shmuel, Rabbi Kalman Winter zt”l, devoted Rav of Southeast Hebrew Congregation of Silver Spring MD, and mesader kiddushin at my wedding, who passed away this week.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

This week’s parashah recounts the episode of the flood. Hashem says to Noach (Bereishis 6:13): “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become filled with villainy on their account, and I hereby am going to wipe them off the earth (הנני משחיתם את הארץ).” In a previous parashah piece, we presented one of the Maggid’s comments on this verse. Here we present another.
In the phrase הנני משחיתם את הארץ, the word את can be read as meaning “with,” which is often its meaning in Biblical verses. Thus, we can render the end of the verse as follows: “I hereby am going to wipe them out, and the earth along with them.” This is, in fact, how Targum Onkelos renders the verse. Now, the simple meaning of the word “earth” is “soil,” and so the implication is that the soil itself was cursed because of man’s evildoing. Indeed, the Midrash teaches that, at the time of the flood, three handbreadths of the earth’s topsoil were washed away (Bereishis Rabbah 31:7). Why was the soil cursed?
At the time of Creation, Hashem infused the soil with the power to sprout life-sustaining produce. But He designed the world in such a way that the soil would yield its produce only if man observed the directives He specified in connection with making a living. Thus, when people act wickedly, robbing and stealing from one another, the soil follows suit and “robs” everyone of their sustenance, shutting itself tight and withholding all its produce. Imagine, by way of analogy, a man inviting a group of people to a feast, and placing before each guest a portion befitting his specific station. If the guests started grabbing food off of each others’ plates, it would be only natural for the host to take away all the food. Similarly, when Hashem saw people stealing from each other, He withheld all His bounty from the world. Thus, while initially the thieves achieved a gain, in the end everyone lost. Thus, the end of all flesh had come, man and animals alike, for the soil had turned “villainous” and robbed all creatures of their sustenance.
In this vein, the Midrash comments on our verse (Bereishis Rabbah 31:7):
It is like a prince who was cared for by a nursemaid. Whenever he misbehaved, the nursemaid was beaten. In the same way, Hashem said: “I hereby am going to wipe them out, and the earth along with them.”
The soil served, so to speak, as a nursemaid for man and for all the animals; its produce sustained them all. Thus, at the time of Creation, Hashem bestowed great blessing on the soil. But, as time went on, the soil’s bounty caused man to stray from the proper path; he waxed fat, and rebelled against Hashem. As a result, Hashem decided to diminish His flow of blessing to the soil. As in the Midrash’s analogy, man’s misconduct caused the soil that sustained him to be smitten.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bereishis

The second verse of the Torah’s account of creation states: “And the world was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence was hovering above the surface of the waters.” The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 2:5):
R. Abbahu said: “From the very beginning of His creation of the world, Hashem foresaw the deeds of the righteous and the wicked. … The phrase ‘the world was astonishingly empty’ refers to the deeds of the wicked, while the phrase ‘let there be light’ refers to the deeds of the righteous. We do not yet know whose deeds Hashem cherishes. But when the Torah tells us that ‘God saw that the light was good,’ we know that the deeds of the righteous are what He cherishes.”
This Midrash is mysterious, and the commentators have expounded on it at length. The Maggid offers an additional perspective. He builds on the the following Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:1):
We are told (Vayikra 19:2): “Be holy!” It is written (Yeshayah 5:16): “Hashem, Master of Legions, is exalted through judgment” [and the verse concludes, “and the Holy God is sanctified through righteousness”]. R. Shimon bar Yochai said: “When is the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He magnified in His world? When He applies the Attribute of Justice with the wicked.” Many verses support this assertion. One such verse states (Yechezkel 38:23): “I shall be exalted and sanctified – I shall make Myself known before the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am Hashem. Another states (Tehillim 9:17): “Hashem became known through the justice He wrought.”
This Midrash portrays two ways in which the Jewish People serve as vehicle for exhibiting Hashem’s greatness. When we are righteous, our conduct glorifies Hashem: “The Holy God is sanctified through righteousness.” Yeshayah 49:3 describes us as “Yisrael, through whom I am glorified.” For instance, when Alexander the Great beheld Shimon HaTzaddik, he declared: “Blessed is the God of Shimon HaTzaddik.” The Torah, referring to the Jewish People, states: cheilek Hashem amo. Literally, this statemente means that we are Hashem’s “portion” within the world, but we can read it as meaning that we, Hashem’s people, are a “portion” of Hashem Himself. The nobility and holiness that we exhibit reflects, in miniature, Hashem’s own nobility and holiness. Thus, when others observe our loftiness, and then recall that it is but a small sample of Hashem’s infinite loftiness, they are led to marvel over Hashem’s greatness. 
On the other hand, when we act wickedly, far be it, Hashem is glorified through His casting His hand of justice upon us: “Hashem, Master of Legions, is exalted through judgment.” In a similar vein, Shlomo teaches (Mishlei 16:4): “All that Hashem made is for His sake, even the evildoer for the day of retribution.” Even the retribution against the wicked makes a positive contribution toward promoting Hashem’s glory, as it is written (Yeshayah 26:9): “When your judgments are cast against the land, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
Hashem exhorts us: “Be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.” Hashem is saying: “One way or the other, I will manifest My holiness. Better it should be through your righteous conduct than through My subjecting you to justice.”
We can now understand well the Midrash’s discussion about whether Hashem cherishes the deeds of the wicked or those of the righteous. Both bring out Hashem’s glory. In fact, Hashem’s meting out justice to the wicked exhibits His glory much more strikingly than the reflection of His loftiness in the deeds of the righteous. Nonetheless, it is the deeds of the righteous that Hashem cherishes.
We can illustrate the idea with a parable. A doctor decided to change careers and become a jeweler. His neighbors were amazed. They asked him: “Do you think you can possibly make as much money as a jeweler as you did as a doctor?” He replied: “I certainly don’t expect to make as much money as I did before. Still, I like my new career much better. Before I dealt with pitiful sick people, and spent my days looking at hideous diseases and wounds. Now I deal with splendid people, and spend my days looking at lovely gold settings and gems.” Similarly, Hashem does not gain as much glory through the deeds of the righteous than He does through the deeds of the wicked, but, still, He much prefers the former to the latter.
David Zucker, Site Administrator